A review of Anna Clark's Michigan's Literary Luminaries

Sep 1, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Anna Clark’s Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden
The History Press, 2015, 160 pp.

Review by Lindy Lindell

Among the 10 poets and prose writers profiled in Anna Clark’s smart and clearly appreciative new book, there are no living Michigan writers who now reside in the Great Lakes State. Dutch Leonard died in 2013, and northern Michigan’s Jim Harrison left a few years ago. Philip Levine, who died in 2014, left Detroit more 60 years ago, but like James Joyce, who spent most of his life in self-imposed exile from his home country of Ireland, Levine never really mentally left the city invariably known for its cars, sports, and music.

Clark has given herself a tough assignment: Writing about writers who wrote stories and poems about Michigan. She has, however, written with radiance herself, and obviously admires writers who sometimes set their works in Michigan, even if they aren’t all particularly known for tying their work to the land.

Not so Ernest Hemingway, who “grew up” in summers spent in northern Michigan, and who certainly wrote about the land, although almost exclusively in his earliest short stories (“The Big Two-Hearted River” and others in his first collection, In Our Time).

It has been claimed by fans that Dutch Leonard is the “Dickens of Detroit,” a label Clark is smart enough to not buy into. She agrees with the commonly held belief that Leonard is a cataloger of “the people,” as Dickens certainly was, and as one who was also astonishingly prolific (and compulsive; it was said that Leonard literally died at his desk), and one who, like Dickens, “had an intuitive understanding of the sentiment and street-swagger of their particular cities.”

But Leonard, whom Clark has elsewhere referred to as a “genre writer” (one who populates his novels with, mostly, a narrow range of hustlers without jobs, or, if they do have jobs, are unconventional in the ways they go about their work) is stylistically almost totally different from the “colorful maximalist tomes” of Dickens: Leonard’s “prose is pared down, stripped to the bone.” The clipped street-patter of Leonard’s wise guys is served up with no inflection or description of how the characters look because Leonard always wanted to keep things moving with no interfering description. Those of us who followed his annual book-letting, from about the time he appeared on the cover of Newsweek, read Dutch Leonard for the snap and verve of his dialogue and bullet-speed plots, and who, stylistically wrote the same novel, whether posited in Detroit or Miami (We stopped reading him about the time of Pagan Babies), was absolutely not the Dickens of Detroit as he was described by his so-called fans.

That Leonard “delivered” a novel every February said a lot about his dedication to task; nothing kept Dutch from writing, and while his life may well have been cut short (if someone in his 80s could be said to be “cut short”) by his addiction to cigarettes (the last time I saw him at Book Beat in Oak Park, the year before his death, the glasses he was wearing didn’t prevent his cigarette smoke from snaking into his eyes); he didn’t give up the cigs and he began drinking again. In Clark’s wonderful, almost Hemingwayesque way of putting it, he “began drinking again … because he missed it and he figured he was old enough.”

Leonard is paired with Donald Goines in a chapter Clark titles “Action Sequence.” The pairing of Leonard and the streetwise Goines is one of very odd bedfellows in that, for all of Greg Sutter’s insistence that Detroit’s Woodward Avenue is Leonard’s “Heart of Darkness” (it’s laughable to think this, because he lived in Birmingham almost his entire writing life before moving to a burb with even larger swimming pools in his last decade or so), Leonard was really only a sometime visitor to Detroit, and then in the company and insulation of cops at 1300 Beaubien and cop hangout bars. Goines’ trips to police stations were accompanied by painful wrist bracelets. Goines, too, was all about action involving non-contemplative protagonists (pimps, drug dealers, addicts) whose arrows were always pointed in the direction of the next chapter. They were also alike, to their detriment, in that their characters were one-dimensional (Leonard’s characters are often charming bad guys; Goines’ largely humorless) and their environs lacking the texture of description; both are alike in that their novels are meant for a quick read on a plane trip.

As a Detroiter since 1978, I have been on a continual lookout for that literature conveying the essence (and funk) of the Motor City. This sense is best conveyed by the African-American poets, Robert Hayden and Dudley Randall (paired in the chapter “Poets of the City”) and the chapter on Philip Levine. All three have enjoyed a kind of enshrinement, with Hayden and Levine being tapped for the position of U.S. Poet Laureate; Hayden and Randall being represented in my text for college freshmen, Literature and the Writing Process; and Levine being the most country’s most decorated poet at the time of his death, having won two National Book Awards and the National Books Critics Circle Award in 1980, when he had more than 30 years of publication (he published 21 books of poetry) ahead of him.

Clark gets it. In her chapter on Levine, “What Philip Levine’s Work Is,” which is based on his collection “What Work Is,” Clark quotes the poet on why working Detroit was such of big part of his life: “There will always be working people in my poems because I grew up with them, and I am a poet of memory.” Levine’s title poem in “What Work Is” does not directly comment on work itself; rather, it depicts the conditions endured by an employee when subjected to the conditioning of a prospective employee. The Levine persona waits for two hours in a line for hire at Ford’s Highland Park factory:

   Forget you. This is about waiting,
   Shifting from one foot to another
   Feeling the light rain, falling like mist
   into your hair, blurring your vision
   until you think you see your own brother
   ahead of you, maybe ten places.
   You rub your glasses with your fingers,
   and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
   narrower across the shoulders than
   yours but with the same sad slouch

It is as if the prospective hire has been beaten down by the time a two-hour wait to be employed is over. Levine believed that Ford purposely had workers show up two hours early because they wanted “docile” employees who would tolerate the wait unquestioningly.

Clark also has a chapter on the influential and larger-than-life personage of poet Theodore Roethke. Acolyte David Wagoner, himself a poet of note, was inspired to become a poet through such taskmaster Roethke lines as “Any fool can cut a bad line. It takes a real pro to cut a good line.” Another chapter, on Joyce Carol Oates, who passed through Motown in the ’60s, predictably keys on her National Book Award winner novel, Them, but it also draws the reader’s attention to her 1991 novel, The Rise of Life on Earth, which has its protagonist, Kathleen Hennessey, tracked from childhood to young adulthood in working-class Detroit. In her research for Luminaries, Clark “discovered” Kentuckian transplant Harriet Simpson Arnow, who wrote several novels that take place in Michigan, most notably in her Detroit-centric The Dollmaker.

This reviewer noticed in the reading of Clark’s book that while other writers of note with Michigan ties (Charles Baxter is an outstanding omission) have been excluded, practically every Michigan writer I could think of (Stephen Dobyns and Nettie Jones are exceptions) are at least mentioned along the way. Does this portend another volume? I hope so.

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